Austin Symphony Orchestra

Conductor Peter Bay spices up the symphonic menu with some new compositions

Edward Burlingame Hill
Edward Burlingame Hill

If planning what music is played at a concert is like crafting a menu, Beethoven is the meat and potatoes. It's an easy choice. The music is rich and will always hit the spot, leaving audiences satiated and smiling. But what if all we ate was meat and potatoes? Don't get me wrong; I love listening to Beethoven symphonies, but there's just so much more out there that's worth hearing that's never even seen the light of day.

In the last two concerts of its 2012-13 season, the Austin Symphony is bringing some fresh flavors to the dinner table. Three weeks ago, it performed two contemporary works by Paul Lansky and Graham Fitkin (the latter a U.S. premiere). Despite the positive feedback, the spicy sounds were also met with a strain of resistance, even from regular subscription holders. ASO Music Director Peter Bay explains, "New music can be stimulating and exciting for many, but for others it's too modern or too dissonant. When people react negatively, I understand. But I feel, as a musician, committed to doing music of our times."

Bay truly is committed to serving Austin new music. This weekend, the ASO will be finishing the season with a world premiere, the Fourth Symphony by Edward Burlingame Hill (1872-1960). This American composer taught some of the most innovative composers of the 20th century, including Leonard Bernstein (also on the program) and Elliot Carter. Hill's first three symphonies were performed by the Boston Symphony, conducted by famed composer Serge Koussevitzky in the early 20th century, but the fourth mysteriously never made it off the shelf of the Harvard library – until this week.

Bay said he first heard about this piece from his friend Karl Miller, a composer and music collector. The process of bringing the piece to life was a huge project. When a copy of the unedited orchestral score arrived in Austin, ASO librarian Alison Mrowka scrupulously entered it into a software program, note by note. From there, Bay edited the score by correcting harmonic discrepancies and adding detailed musical markings. He said the score had little indication for tempo and dynamics, so he's had to play through bits on the piano. "The more you play it, the more you feel it ... you know when to breathe," the conductor says. Even so, the piece will only truly be resurrected in the first rehearsal, which Bay says will be "a revelation." The ASO is planning to record Hill's Fourth for its first commercial release, and more works by the composer, for piano and orchestra, are slotted for next season.

Bay reminded me of a famous example from music history as a way to maintain conviction about presenting adventurous, even risky programs. Beethoven is a classic now, but the critics' response to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was "puzzling." Critics didn't like that there was singing and drums in a symphony, but, today, nobody would even think twice about those complaints. Bay candidly admits that he's never going to be able to please everyone with his programming choices. "I have to go with my gut and find the right balance," but he also divulges that there's a "backlog of new music I'd like to program." In a city that prides itself on food-truck staples of kimchi fries and artisan donuts, we should be more daring and eager to expand our musical palates, too.

The Austin Symphony performs Hill: Symphony No. 4 May 31-June 1, Friday & Saturday, 8pm, in Dell Hall at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, call 512/476-6064 or visit

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Austin Symphony Orchestra, Austin classical music, Peter Bay, Alison Mrowka, Edward Burlingame Hill, Leonard Bernstein

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